Illustration by Kat Morgan

Kabul Afghanistan, Late 2001.  

Timur rarely left the small dingy room above the confectionery where he worked. He was especially scared on the weekends and did not dare venture outside. He sat in front of his small round window and watched the Taliban on the street beat women on their ankles with their sticks for not wearing burqas, arresting young boys whom they found sexually attractive, forcing men to go to the mosque for prayers, and amputating the hands and legs of alleged thieves. At night, he entertained himself by listening to the BBC World Service both in English and in Farsi to keep up to date with the rest of the world. One night when he was making up his bed, he heard that terrorists had flown two planes into the tallest skyscrapers in New York City. He sat at the edge of his bed, picked up his radio, and did not sleep a wink until sunrise, trying to guess who had performed the evil act. 

For the next three weeks, as soon as Timur finished his shift at the confectionery, he took a quick shower, rushed upstairs to his room, turned on his radio, and listened to the news while eating dinner. The American president George W. Bush demanded that the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden. The Taliban declined, claiming Osama had not been involved in the 9/11 attacks. This went on for days until one night George W. Bush announced he would launch a military intervention if the Taliban continued to protect Osama. Timur was very excited to hear the news. He could not wait for the Taliban to be toppled so he could go outside without fear and walk around the neighborhood like a normal person again, but the escalating rhetoric coming from both sides seemed to lead to no firm conclusion. Eventually, Timur grew tired of the war of words and stopped following the news. 

One morning when Timur was putting on his work clothes, his whole room shook. He steadied himself against the wall so he would not fall. After that day, American planes called B-52s routinely came and dropped their bombs on many Taliban headquarters and offices. They were very precise and never missed their targets. Timur observed the city around him through the tiny window in his room. After a week, the Taliban, who had only recently been invincible figures, were now in utter disarray. They were divided into two groups. The first group was constantly watching their surroundings while loading their belongings on the backs of their pickups and driving away. The second group was completely crushed and disoriented, wandering up and down the street in their dusty shalwar kameez and turbans, looking exhausted and incapable of thought or action. They longed to surrender and be taken prisoner so they could escape the misery of their position, but who could they capitulate to? 

In the second week, there were no Taliban to be seen anywhere in the streets. Cars and people deserted the streets too. A profound calm reigned in Kabul. Timur still did not dare leave his room. He wanted to see the conquerors so he could be assured that the Taliban were indeed gone for good, but where were they and what did they look like? The suspense made him more anxious than the cabin fever he had been grappling with for the past six years. Whenever he heard the slightest sound outside, he ran to his window only to discover some stray dogs growling at each other over the heap of trash on the sidewalk. 

One day, Timur was startled awake by a loud murmuring noise outside. He got up drowsily and looked out the window. He could not believe his eyes. The street was swarming with men, women, and children. A few American soldiers equipped with big guns were walking among them. Their smiling baby faces look odd beneath their helmets.

“Freedom!” everyone was chanting. “Freedom! Freedom!” 

Were the Taliban really gone, and did that mean people were no longer bound to their insane rules and harsh discipline? Timur happily rushed out—forgetting he was still in his pajamas—to join the crowd. After yelling “freedom” a few times with the jubilant masses, he realized that everyone around him was still in a state of shock and disbelief, and no one was prepared for their sudden liberty. They were happy and screaming at the top of their lungs, but their faces expressed fear, as if they were afraid the Taliban would rush at them any minute and flog them to death. It was especially shocking for everyone to discover that the Taliban had been defeated by some American female pilots, which was quite ironic because they had imposed so many unnecessary rules on women, only to be vanquished by a handful of women. Some people in the crowd wanted the pictures of the American female pilots plastered all over the walls throughout the country so they could see who their saviors were. Instead, in the following days, posters of Hollywood and Bollywood stars flooded the streets of Kabul. 

Everything started to change very quickly, and every day people broke one Taliban rule after another: Men shaved their beards and wore flashy clothes like the ones worn by actors in the posters. Women stopped wearing burqas when they went out. They painted their nails, put on makeup, and wore high heels. Restaurants and cars played loud music. TV networks and radio stations popped up all over the country in a matter of months, showing films and playing songs twenty-four hours a day. Musicians and actors started to revive their art by creating new songs and films. At the end of the year, the markets were booming with new Afghan movies and songs. Most of them were terrible, but everyone watched them and listened to them because they were Afghan.

* * *

The Taliban had been gone for months, but there were days Timur could still not leave his room. He was afraid the tyrants would return any minute, whip him in public for trimming his beard, and imprison him for weeks. He was fully aware that he was being paranoid, but he also knew that once fear found its way into a man’s heart it would keep its nest there for life. “I must get rid of my fear,” he mumbled to himself day after day. “I must eradicate it and throw it away.” But how? One night he decided that as soon as he finished his shift every day, he would go out and walk around the neighborhood for an hour. 

Walking worked. After a month, he felt very comfortable pacing around his neighborhood and started to explore the adjacent neighborhoods too. His courage grew when he saw some American soldiers strolling among the people. They often gave him friendly smiles before saying salaam. Timur grinned back and nodded. In his head he could communicate with the soldiers better than the locals who talked to them with their mispronounced words and incorrect grammar, but he was too shy to approach them. 

Timur loved following pedestrians and listening to their conversation. “I like my job very much,” he overheard a man telling his friend one day.  

“Then you’re probably the luckiest person in the whole world.”

“I’m not kidding. I’m serious.” 

“What exactly do you do for the American soldiers?”

“I interpret some basic things when they talk to random people on the street.”

“Is that all? No paperwork in the office?” 

“None whatsoever, my friend.”

“How much are they paying you?” 

“Well, that, my friend, I can’t tell you.” 

“Oh, come on! I share everything about my life with you, don’t I? Now tell me how much they are paying you.” 

“One hundred dollars per day,” he answered after a short pause.  

Timur froze in the middle of the sidewalk. The strangers walking behind him bumped into him and warned him to watch out. He ignored them because he was too busy calculating $100 times thirty days in his head, times twelve months, then converting that amount into Afghani. He could be a millionaire in less than a year if he was working for the American soldiers instead of laboring at the confectionery for ten hours a day only to earn one hundred and thirty dollars a month. How can I get one of those interpreting jobs? he wondered. At the same time, he was not confident about his language skills. Apart from listening to the BBC World Service in English, and occasionally studying a few English textbooks and a pocket dictionary over the years, he had never practiced his English. He did not waste time. He turned around, ran to the bus stop, jumped on a bus, and went downtown. He searched a dozen bookstores for English novels so he could read a few pages and see if he understood every word in them, but he could not find any because the Taliban had burned them all. Finally, he located a thick volume with worn-out pages and many sketches of ancient historic buildings. It was called Scotland in the Middle Ages. He bought it, went back to his room, and spent the whole night reading the first chapter. It was filled with many phrases he could not find in his pocket dictionary. He was not sure whether the text was written by an idiot who did not know how to use words properly or his pocket dictionary was lacking many phrases. Around two in the morning, when his vision became blurry from concentrating for too long and he still could not make sense of the text, he hurled the book away. “Why am I torturing myself with this piece of junk?” he growled before he lay flat in the middle of his room and dozed off right away. 

* * *

The next day, when Timur finished his work in the late afternoon, he went out and stood in front of the confectionery, waiting for some American soldiers to pass by. As soon as he saw two approaching, he gathered all his courage and walked over to them. They were both his age, but taller and broader. “How are you?” he asked. His plan was to ask them for an interpreting job. 

“Good,” the soldiers said. “How are you?” 

“I’m very well,” Timur replied mechanically. His head suddenly felt empty. He could not recall another single English word. He ran his hand through his wavy hair and laughed nervously, not knowing what else to say. The words suddenly returned to him as if there was a jinni in his head who was having fun with him, taking the words away and bringing them back. “Are you enjoying my country?” he asked.

“Yes, we are,” the soldiers replied. 

“Have you tried some Afghan dishes?” As Timur went on conversing with the soldiers using basic sentences, he was surprised to discover that speaking English gave him a sense of relief and made him feel like a new person. He was no longer trapped in his gloomy childhood, when he was a mere bacha-party dancer. He considered himself the soldiers’ equal. “Can I work with you as your interpreter?” he finally asked. 

The soldiers chuckled. “No, man!” they said. “Go to our base with your résumé. Those people do the hiring, not us here on the street.”  

Timur did not know what a résumé was but did not ask out of fear of appearing ignorant.  

“See you around, buddy,” the soldiers said and walked away. 

Timur ran to his room, opened his dictionary, and found the meaning of the word résumé. He picked up the notebook and pen lying on the small table next to his bed, trying to describe where to start and what to list in his résumé. Can I say that a drug lord in the countryside named Commander Rabbani held me in captivity a day after I lost my father and turned me into his bacha for five years? Then he wondered if the Americans knew what a bacha was, or if he had to describe it to them: a bacha is a good-looking young boy who is abducted and trained to dress like a woman and dance at the parties of pedophiles for money. Should I say that even though I have a full beard now, I still know how to dress like a woman and dance like a professional? The more he thought about his grim childhood days, the harder his hand shook, as if he had suddenly turned into a decrepit old man. Should I say that there were times when Commander Rabbani rented me out to some of his friends for a few hours after parties, and they did all sorts of unspeakable things to me? He thought that if he listed everything from his past, his résumé would turn into a fifty-page document. Maybe I should keep it short and vague, he finally decided before he wrote the following:

  • My name is Timur and I’m twenty-four years old. 
  • I was twelve when my father drowned digging a well in our yard in the countryside. 
  • I was left with the responsibility of providing for my mother and younger sister. 
  • I worked as a servant for a man in our village.  
  • I was dismissed five years later and moved to Kabul. 
  • I’ve been working as a confectioner for the past seven years now. 
  • I taught myself English by studying an English dictionary, some English textbooks, and listening to the BBC. 
  • I would like to serve you as an interpreter. 
  • I am a hard-working man. I can guarantee you that you won’t regret hiring me. 
  • I don’t have a phone number or an email address. Honestly, I don’t know what an email is. I couldn’t find its meaning in my dictionary, but you can find me at the confectionery. It is in the north of Kabul, Taimani, across from Madina mosque. It is called Taste of Mouth. (Every day many American soldiers pass by and take pictures of the sign.) Just knock on the red wooden door and ask for me. I’m here day and night, and I’m eagerly awaiting your knock. 

Sincerely, 

Timur 

Timur took two buses to travel to the southern part of Kabul, where he had never gone before because of the Taliban patrols. The second bus stopped in front of the American military base, which was surrounded by walls and topped with barbed wire. An American soldier whose arms were as thick as Timur’s thighs was standing in front of a sturdy navy green metal gate. There was a yellow mailbox next to the gate with a sign: “Drop your résumé here.” Timur followed the instructions and returned to the confectionery. For days afterwards, as he packed candies in plastic bags, he expected a knock on the front door any minute. Nothing. He wrote another résumé and returned to the base. This time he decided not to drop it off in the mailbox. He went to the guard with massive arms, stood in front of him, and looked up. “What is your name, sir?” he asked. 

The soldier scanned Timur suspiciously. “Brian,” he answered in a throaty voice. “What can I do for you?”

“Here, Brian,” Timur handed him his résumé. “Would you like me to work for you?” 

Brian took off his sunglasses and read it. “Oh my God!” he cried out before he gave Timur a curious smile as if he had discovered his old friend after many years. “Didn’t you drop a similar letter in the mailbox about a week or two ago?”

“Not a letter, sir, my résumé.” 

“Seriously?” Brian asked as he waved Timur’s new résumé around. 

“Why? Did I misspell some of the words, sir?” 

Brian went on looking at Timur with hesitation. “Come with me,” he finally said as he turned around and pressed a button on the door, which automatically opened. Timur trailed after him. He was immediately stopped by another soldier as big and muscular as Brian, who searched him thoroughly and took away his keys and wallet before he told him to follow Brian. 

The compound was not as exciting as Timur had expected. Apart from a few tall pine trees, the place was covered with white gravel, and there were dozens of bulky military vehicles parked in neat lines. Timur trailed after Brian, who took him to an office where a man was sitting behind a metal desk, staring at his laptop. The bright glow illuminated his clean-shaven face.

“Hey Eric,” Brian said to the man behind the desk, “the funny guy is here in the flesh.”   

“Hold on a sec,” Eric said without looking up. “I’ll be with you in a minute.” 

Timur studied the room. It was empty except for an overloaded file cabinet in a corner. There was a green board on the wall behind Eric’s chair with some documents pinned on it. He saw his old résumé in the bottom left side corner. 

Eric closed his laptop and looked up at Timur with curiosity. Brian handed him Timur’s new résumé. 

“Holy shit!” Eric said after a quick glance. 

“Holy shit!” Brian echoed Eric. His satellite phone rang. “I gotta go.” He left. 

“How can shit be holy?” Timur wondered, but he did not ask Eric because he was afraid of sounding ignorant and leaving a bad impression.  

“So you are the prankster, huh?” Eric asked. 

Timur was suddenly very nervous. “No, sir,” he replied matter-of-factly, while holding his hands behind his back. “I’m not here for the prankster job. I’m here for an interpreter job.”

Eric snorted as if Timur had told him a dull joke. “How much English do you know?” he asked. 

Timur did not know how to measure his language skills. He assumed Eric had a machine that he could stick his head into, and it would accurately determine his English fluency. “I don’t know, sir,” he replied. “Do you have a gadget to gauge my English? I want to know too.” 

Eric chuckled. Timur did not know why Eric was laughing because he did not tell him a joke. He tried to smile, pretending that his intention was to make Eric laugh all along. 

“Jokes aside,” Eric added, “why are you here, and what can I do for you?” 

“I’m here for the interpreter’s job, sir. I know you pay your interpreters one hundred dollars a day, but I’m happy to work for ninety dollars a day.” Timur thought bargaining down his price would get him hired right away. “Eighty dollars is fine with me too.” He paused and waited for a reply. 

Eric went on looking at Timur, showing no expression. 

Timur thought Eric wanted him to lower his rate a little more. “How about seventy dollars per day?” he asked. “Will that be acceptable to you, sir?” 

“If a man strikes up a conversation with you at a supermarket, do you feel at ease talking to him?” 

What a strange question, Timur thought. “What kind of conversation, sir?” he asked. 

“Anything. Let’s say the weather.” 

“Why should he talk to me about the weather, sir? It is always sunny here.” 

“Yes, but it snows in winter, doesn’t it? It rains in spring—that sort of stuff.” 

Timur suddenly realized what was behind Eric’s absurd questions. He was being interviewed for the interpreter’s job without warning. “Oh yes, sir,” he said. “I make idle talks with the strangers all the time, but it is never about the weather.” 

Eric leaned back in his chair and went on looking at Timur with an indecisive look in his deep-set blue eyes. “Your English isn’t bad,” he said, “and we are short on interpreters.” He paused for a moment as if deliberating with himself. “Hold on a sec,” he added before he opened his laptop and typed something very fast. A minute later, a paper came out of the small printer next to his computer. He pulled it out and gave it to Timur. “Here is your contract. It is just a temporary one, okay? Read it carefully. Sign at the bottom if you agree with everything.” 

Beneath the logo and date on the top, there were a few lines that read: 

This is a one-week contract. Your job is to walk around Kabul with the American troops and conduct friendly chats with the locals. If you prove your competency in the English language, your contract will be extended for six more months. Daily wage: $100. 

Timur was thrilled. He picked up a pen from a penholder on Eric’s desk and signed his name both in Dari and English. 

“Very good,” Eric said as he got up, towering over Timur. “I’ll assign you to Sergeant Brian who you already met and Lieutenant John, who is not here today. Your job starts tomorrow at 800 sharp.” Then he gave Timur a firm handshake. 

On his way out, Timur saw Brian mindlessly pacing between the vehicles and talking to someone on his satellite phone. He waved at him while wondering how to ask his boss at the confectionery for a week off. 

* * *

The next day Timur woke earlier than usual, shaved his scruffy beard, put on the new jeans and white shirt he had purchased the day before, and headed to the base. He was a few minutes late because of the traffic that was beginning to become a problem as more and more cars were being brought to Kabul. The Americans were here. Everyone knew there was money to be made in the city. 

As Timur entered the base, he saw Brian loaded with weapons, including a large knife attached to his belt, and standing in front of the vehicles. 

“Congrats, man!” Brian exclaimed. “You got the job.” 

“Yes, I did. Thank you.” 

“We are colleagues now.” 

Timur liked the sound of that. “Yes, we are,” he said. “Should we go out and talk to people?”  

“Wait for John. He is in the bathroom.” 

Timur sat in a white plastic chair in the shade. “I don’t like the sun,” he said, trying to strike up a conversation and practice his English. “It burns my skin.” 

Brian retrieved a small bottle from his pocket and gave it to Timur. “Rub it all over your face and neck,” he said. “It’ll protect your skin.” 

Timur obeyed the instructions, feeling a little encouraged. “Now let me try your sunglasses too,” he said.

Brian grinned uncomfortably before he took off his glasses and offered them to Timur. 

Timur put them on and stood sideways, posing like an actor. “How do I look?” he asked. 

Brian gave Timur a thumbs-up. “Great,” he said. “Very sexy.”  

A whirlwind of childhood memories flashed through Timur’s mind. Did Brian find him attractive? If so, what did he expect him to do to earn $100 a day? “I’m only here as your interpreter, sir,” he said resolutely. “I’m not interested in doing dirty things with you.” 

“What dirty things?” 

“When a man takes off his clothes and forces himself on a boy.” 

“Yo, yo,” Brian said as he took a step back. “Are you crazy? What the hell, man!”

Timur quickly recovered his pocket dictionary, found the page, and read from it aloud: “Sexy means sexually exciting.” Then he glanced at Brian. 

Brian guffawed as though Timur had told him a very funny joke. “Listen, pal,” he said. “Sexy means hot. You look hot in my sunglasses.” 

Timur took off the glasses and handed them to Brian. “It is not true,” he said. “I’m standing in the shade, and I don’t feel hot at this moment.” 

Brian seemed to be on the verge of bursting out into laughter again. He turned around and walked away. 

Timur thought that was very rude. He wished he could get up and leave, but one hundred dollars per day started ringing in his head, and he returned to his seat in the plastic chair. 

After a few steps, Brian turned around and halted a few feet away from Timur. “Listen, pal,” he said, “there is a dictionary meaning, and then there is how people talk. When you hear someone telling you, ‘You look hot,’ he doesn’t mean it literally, man. Hot in that context means good-looking, sharp, you know?”

How can one word have two totally different meanings? Timur wondered. He opened his dictionary to prove Brian wrong. 

“Stop using that thing!” Brian protested. “If you don’t understand something I say, just ask me, ‘What do you mean?’ I’ll try to explain it to you or rephrase my sentences.” 

Brian sounded sincere and helpful, but Timur still had his suspicions. He nodded and put his dictionary back in his pocket.  

Another white soldier walked over to Timur and Brian. He was a little plump and slightly shorter than Brian. “Hello,” he said as he extended his hand to Timur. “I’m John. I believe you are Timur, the new interpreter, right?” 

“Yes, sir.” 

Brian whispered something into John’s ear. From the sudden change in John’s face, Timur could tell that Brian was complaining about his imperfect English. 

“Shall we?” John said to Timur as he headed to the gate. 

Timur got up and followed Brian and John outside. As soon as they stepped out onto the sidewalk, Brian sneezed several times in a row. “The fucking dust is killing me!” he exclaimed before blowing his nose.    

The dust in Kabul was full of sewage that spilled out of the open sewers and onto the streets, where it dried before it was blown into the air by cars and the wind. Timur did not explain all that to Brian. If he wants to have sex with the dust, he told himself, that is his business.

They crossed the busy road. A dozen wooden carts were parked on the other side, selling fruits and vegetables. Brian and John said salaam to the vendors and their customers. The locals returned their greetings with loud whistles and cheers. 

As they turned the corner and entered an empty street with tall concrete buildings on both sides, a strong middle-aged man with a shovel slung over his shoulder walked towards them. His head and beard were covered in dust, his clothes were soiled, and his trousers were rolled to his knees, revealing his sunburned legs. He looked like a farmer. He stopped in front of Brian and John and gave them a military salute. “One-thousand-one hellos to you and America,” he shouted to them as if they were deaf. Then he turned to Timur and asked, “Are you the translator?” 

Timur nodded. 

“My son speaks good English. Can these two get him a job as a translator?”

Timur interpreted. 

“Sure,” John said, “but if his English turns out to be not so good, he’ll be fired right away.” 

Timur was deeply appalled by John’s response. “He says if your son doesn’t speak good English, he will burn him,” he interpreted. 

The farmer lifted his shovel at John. “I’m going to burn your entire family alive,” he growled like an injured dog.

John and Brian quickly took a step backward as they pointed their big guns at the farmer. 

“Why is he screaming at me?” John asked Timur with alarm. 

“What did you tell him?” Brian asked. He was as pale as John.

“I told him John is going to burn his son if he doesn’t speak good English.” 

“I didn’t say I’ll burn his son!” John yelled at Timur, while keeping his agitated eyes fixed on the farmer and his finger on the trigger of his gun. “I said he’ll be fired.” 

“What is the difference?” Timur yelled back. “Whether you set someone on fire or fire him, you end up burning him, don’t you?” Then he turned to Brian. “Right?”

Brian lowered his gun and let out a high-pitched laugh, which Timur thought was very strange. Was Brian losing his mind? 

“You’re the worst interpreter ever!” John screamed at Timur.  

“You’re the rudest person ever,” Timur retorted. “Why do you want to burn or fire this innocent man’s son for not knowing enough English? Didn’t the Taliban torture us enough?” 

“For fuck’s sake, stop laughing,” John shrieked at Brian while still pointing his gun at the farmer. “Look at this dude’s crazy face. If he fucking hits me with his shovel, I’m gonna fucking shoot him.” 

“What are these idiots ranting about?” the farmer asked Timur while still holding his shovel and aiming it at John. His hands were shaking. 

“I don’t know,” Timur replied. 

“You don’t know?” the farmer screeched with incredulous eyes. “What kind of translator are you?” 

Brian stopped laughing. “Listen carefully,” he managed to say to Timur. “Interpret word by word. Tell this guy that if his son’s English is not good, we won’t hire him.”  

“This makes sense,” Timur said and performed his job. 

The farmer lowered his shovel and set his foot on its edge. Then he pointed to Brian. “Tell him he is a good soldier, which is why America sent him here.” Then he pointed his menacing finger at John. “What comes out of this idiot’s mouth is as bad as what comes out of one’s ass. If he goes around telling people he is going to scorch their sons for speaking bad English, he’ll make a lot of enemies in this country. And soon someone will do him dooom dooom dooom. He will get buried and turn into dirt. I’ll use this shovel to grow vegetables in the soil. You see, eventually he’ll be under my feet.”

Timur slowly interpreted the farmer’s speech into English. When he was done, the farmer walked away with his shovel on his shoulder. “Bunch of idiots,” he mumbled. 

John, who had relaxed a little, turned to Timur. “You’re done, you’re finished,” he screamed, spraying Timur’s face with his spit. “I’m going back to the base to print your termination letter. Do you understand me, dumbass?” Then he turned to Brian. “See you later.” He walked away. 

Timur’s feelings was very hurt from being screamed at for doing nothing wrong. “If he had yelled at the farmer like that,” he said to Brian, “the man would have landed his shovel on his head.”

“Listen buddy,” Brian said. “you have a lot of English left to learn.” He sounded genuine. “Trust me, man.” 

“Well, today is my first and last day working with you.”  

“Then let’s explore your beautiful city and make some new friends for America.”

As they strolled down the street, Timur replayed his interaction with John. “I know dumb means stupid,” he said to Brian, “and ass means bottom or donkey. Did John call me a stupid donkey or a stupid bottom when he cursed me and said dumbass?”

“Neither. Dumbass means stupid. That is all.”

“Then why didn’t he just call me stupid?”

“Sometimes we add ass at the end of some words to emphasize their meanings.” 

Timur found that very interesting. “The antonym of dumb is smart,” he said. “Can I say smartass then?” 

“Sure you can.” 

“You are a smartass, Brian.” 

“Don’t say that. It has a bad meaning.” 

“Even a smartass isn’t a good thing?” 

“That is right, pal. If I say you are a badass it means you’re tough, and that is good. If I say don’t be a smartass, that means you shouldn’t act as though you are better than me.”  

Timur had learned a lot from Brian in a few minutes. If he worked with him for six months, he could learn so much more. He felt sorry for himself for being sacked on his first day. 

“I want to see some burnt-out Russian tanks,” Brian said. “Can you show me some?” 

Timur remembered seeing a few in the middle of the Kabul River, which was only a few blocks away. He guided Brian there. They stopped four times along the way because Brian wanted to ask random people on the street if they were happy the Taliban were gone. The answer was always yes with a wide smile. Some men shared their bleak Taliban prison stories with Brian, showing him the scars on their bodies. “Taliban souvenirs,” they said. 

Finally, they reached the Kabul River, where little boys were standing on the tanks flying kites. The stink rising from the mud in the riverbed was stifling. Brian did not seem to mind it. He walked over to the tank carcasses and touched them as if they were something very special. “This is fucking incredible!” he said. 

Now Timur understood that the word fucking was also used for emphasis. “And those kids are fucking flying kites on it,” he added. 

“You got it, buddy,” Brian said. Then he searched his pockets, retrieved a camera, and snapped a few photos of the tanks with the kids, who were shouting “one dollar.” Brian gave them a thumbs up. They imitated him, and he took their pictures. Then he took out a package of gum from his pocket, offered Timur a piece, and gave the rest to the boys. It had a strong mint flavor and tasted sweeter than the gum sold in Afghanistan. “Now I want to see some schools,” he demanded. 

Timur took Brian across the river to the most prestigious girls’ high school in Kabul, Haish-e-Dranni, which the Taliban had used as one of their headquarters during the six years of their tyrannical reign. Its walls were full of holes from rockets and bullets, and most of the windowpanes were gone, but each class was overflowing with students. 

Brian stood at the front gate and took a few photos. “What a scene!” he said. “Un-fucking-believable!” 

Several students ran over to them, studying Brian’s large arms and guns as if he was an exotic creature from a different planet. “Hello, mister,” one of the girls said in English. 

“Hi,” Brian replied. “Are you guys students here?” 

Timur did not have to interpret. 

“Yes, we are,” the girl answered as her friends were adjusting their white scarves around their heads. 

“Then why you aren’t in class?”  

The girls whispered amongst each other for a moment. “Our teacher didn’t wake this morning,” one of them replied while her classmates giggled. The bell rang. They looked at each other. “Goodbye, mister,” they said and dashed toward the building. 

Brian quickly snapped their photos. The loose ends of the white scarves fluttering behind the girls reminded Timur of the Taliban’s flags that had been hoisted on top of every tree in the city not too long ago. 

“I’m absolutely parched, man,” Brian said. “Where can I buy some water?” 

Timur took him to the stall on the other side of the street. When Brian handed the shopkeeper the money for his bottle, the old man refused to take it. “You cleared this country of the dark-minded Taliban,” he said in his feeble voice. “I can at least give you some water.” 

Timur interpreted.

“Thank you so much!” Brian said as if he had been granted the most precious gift in the world. 

“I’m going home for lunch,” the shopkeeper said to Timur. “I’d be very honored if you and your friend would join me.”

Timur interpreted. 

“No thank you,” Brian said to Timur.  

Timur was surprised by Brian’s blunt rejection. “Why not?” he confronted him. 

“Because I don’t know the man.”  

“I don’t know him either.”  

“Do you guys walk into each other’s houses just like that?”

“If you get invited, yes.” 

“Are you sure it isn’t inappropriate?” 

Timur was annoyed by Brian’s unnecessary questions. “No, not at all,” he said gruffly. 

Brian shrugged. “Okay then,” he said.  

The shopkeeper’s name was Rajab Ali. He was a small man with tiny soulful eyes and a crooked unkempt white beard. He walked ahead of Timur and Brian with rapid short steps as if he was driven by his hunger. After two blocks, he turned left where thousands of flies were buzzing over the still water of the gutters lining both sides of the street. “That is my house,” he said as he pointed to a one-story mud-brick structure at the very end.

Timur and Brian followed Rajab Ali inside a courtyard filled with hens and a few roosters. The walls of the courtyard were splattered with shrapnel holes. Brian took some pictures before they all entered the dark hallway. Brian was too tall for the doorway. He had to bow his head and bend his whole body to get inside. They took off their shoes and entered a room to the right. The floor was covered with old rugs, and the walls were full of photos in elaborate and tacky golden frames. A few neatly folded blankets were piled up in one corner or the room, and some pillows were stacked on the other side. The red velvet curtains gave everything in the room a pink tint, and the whole place smelled of herbs and fried food.

Timur enjoyed watching Brian, who was observing his surroundings with the look of an archaeologist who had just discovered an ancient untouched cave. “This is my first time in an Afghan home,” he said with excitement. 

“Congratulations!” Timur teased him. 

“Don’t be a smartass,” Brian retorted as he took a seat next to Timur on the narrow toshak-futon spread along the window. 

A shy skinny teenage girl dressed in a red shirt and jeans entered the room with a tray. “Salaam,” she said timidly to no one in particular. She left the tray on the floor in front of her father and darted out. Rajab Ali poured tea in all the glasses and served his guests.  

Brian took a sip of his tea. “This smells amazing!” he exclaimed. 

Timur interpreted. 

“It is full of cardamom,” Rajab Ali said. “Cardamom treats infections in your teeth and gums. I’m sixty-two years old, and look.” He showed Timur and Brian his front teeth. Indeed, they were in good shape. “Cardamom is also good for breaking up kidney stones.” 

“You know a lot about cardamom,” Brian said after taking another sip.

“I used to be a biology teacher at Haish-e-Dranni High School. The government doesn’t pay teachers enough. So I ended up quitting and opened my stall.”

“Interesting,” Brian mused. 

“Also,” Rajab Ali said as if he had remembered something important, “we have many snakes and scorpions in this country. When they sting you, you must use cardamom as an antidote for both kinds of venom.” 

“I’ll remember that,” Brian said as he emptied his cup. Then he pointed to the walls. “Who are the people in those photos?” 

“My sons and their children. They’re still living in Pakistan. They left six years ago because of the Taliban.” 

The girl returned with an aluminum pot and pitcher. She poured water from the pitcher over her father’s hands and into the pot, then handed him a small cloth towel. Then she moved onto Timur, and then to Brian. Brian did not scrub between his fingers and under his nails like Timur and Rajab Ali did. The girl seemed to find that very amusing. She bit her lower lip, and her face turned red from suppressing her laughter. When she was done with Brian, she spread a white sofra-eating cloth on the floor, left the room and returned with her mother carrying trays of steaming rice and lamb stew cooked with potatoes, carrots, and turnips.

“Salaam,” the mother said to Brian and Timur after she put the food on the sofra

“Salaam,” Brian replied as he extended his hand to the mother, who refused to shake it. Brian grew flustered. Quickly, he pulled his hand away and put them together in front of his face. 

“That is how Indians greet each other,” Timur whispered to Brian. “You must put your right hand over your heart and say ‘Salaam’ whenever you meet Afghan women.” 

“I’ll remember that,” Brian whispered back. 

The mother had a jolly little face, as if she was still under the influence of a joke she had heard earlier. She adjusted the green scarf that covered her head and torso and took a seat next to Rajab Ali. “Welcome to our humble abode with your friend,” she said to Timur. Then she turned to Brian. “Please give us the honor of taking the first bite.”

Timur interpreted. 

“Thank you,” Brian said before he ate a spoonful of stew. “This is spicy.” 

“Don’t you like it?” the mother asked. 

“I love it,” Brian replied, but from the look on his face Timur was not sure if Brian really meant it. His eyes widened, and he started taking big breaths. He took out a handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose. 

Everyone stopped eating and looked at Brian with incredulous eyes. Timur had not told Brian in advance that blowing his nose during a meal was offensive in their culture. 

“You are full of snot,” the mother joked. 

Brian did not understand the sarcasm. “The dust is killing me.” He blew his nose again.

“The dust during the years of civil war was even worse,” the mother said. 

“Bombs and rockets exploded everywhere,” Rajab Ali added. “I still have the stench of burnt flesh mixed with cordite and smoke in my nose.” 

“That is horrible!” Brian exclaimed. “I didn’t know you guys had a civil war.” 

“It was a bloody one,” the mother said, “and it lasted for five years.” 

“War is a stinking cowardly murderer,” Rajab Ali added. “It creeps up on you when you least expect it.” He bowed his head and began telling a story like a storyteller in a teahouse. “It is a peaceful day. The sun is shining, birds are chirping, people are walking up and down the street, and you are leaning against a tree, chatting with your friend on the sidewalk. A rocket comes out of the blue sky and lands nearby, sending out hot pieces of steel moving like angry wasps towards everyone.” He heaved a stifling sigh, which gave Timur a chance to catch his breath because he was interpreting the words as fast as they were coming out of Rajab Ali’s mouth. “Then you notice you are sitting in the middle of the street, and you don’t know how you ended up there. The deafening buzz in your head makes you even more confused and distraught. You look around yourself in bewilderment, but all you can see is a suffocating smoke mixed with dust. You blink a few times and wait for the air to clear before you see a man running out of the smoke, yelling for help. You can’t hear him because of the loud buzz in your head. You still don’t know what is going on until your eyes fall on some men not too far from you. One is missing an arm, another a leg, a third his head, and there is blood bubbling through the mess of flesh on his neck. You suddenly remember what happened. You quickly search your body for signs of injury and discover you are completely unharmed. You wonder what has saved you, but you don’t ponder over it for too long. You get up and look for your friend. You find him sitting against the shattered tree, staring at his wide-open belly with a horror-stricken look in his eyes. You run over to him to help, even though you don’t know what kind of help you can give him. He looks up at you in a sort of nasty way as if you made all that mess happen to him, then he looks back at his belly, at his guts spilled out on his lap, and he seems puzzled by how to put them back inside and stitch the skin together.” Rajab Ali paused. “You see your neighbors pouring out of their houses, looking for their family members. A voice in your head tells you that you were saved so you can help your neighbors collect their loved ones from the street, but you don’t dare touch the dead bodies and body parts thrown all around you.” Rajab Ali paused for a long time, which indicated that he did not want to tell the rest of his story.

The girl got up and left the room. Her plate of food was untouched. 

“I ran out of the house with our youngest son, looking for him,” the mother added in her quivery voice, “and quickly realized that we were walking on people who had just been shredded into pieces. We froze and looked around us. Body parts were scattered everywhere. Blood was smeared on everything. My twelve-year-old boy buried his little face in my skirt and started screaming.” She stopped talking and gave Timur and Brian a faint smile, as though her voice had failed her. 

Timur had a hard time keeping his boiling emotions under control, but he felt slightly better about himself when he looked at Brian, whose face was full of red patches. Brian’s cheeks were twitching, and the thick veins in his temples were pulsing. 

“I remained standing in front of my friend and watched him take his last breath,” Rajab Ali started talking in the first person again. “When his soul departed and left behind a broken shell, I reproached the angels in my head for saving me because I saw how much easier it was to die in an instant than to witness all the chaos and misery around me. I predicted there and then that I was destined to die a slow death. I knew that even if I never saw another day of war again, in my head I’d always live in the belly of the monster. I knew that those images were forever stuck in my brain like unremovable cancer cells, and they would visit me day and night, in my sleep and during my waking hours.” He paused and went on looking at Timur with his glittering eyes. “My prediction proved to be true.” He turned to Brian and smiled with his lips. “The Kabul dust today, my comrade, is nothing in comparison to Kabul’s dust of war. Today’s dust is the dust of peace, and it breathes life into our dead souls.” 

Timur took a deep breath before interpreting Rajab Ali’s last words, feeling glad that his host had ended his tragic story on a positive note. He turned to Brian, who opened his mouth to say something before Rajab Ali got up, took a framed photo from the wall, and handed it to Brian. “This was our twelve-year-old son who saw everything,” he said. “The next day when he could no longer tolerate the images in his head, he stepped on a minefield behind our house and got himself blown into pieces. I decided to be brave like him and get rid of those scenes in my head for once and for all. I stuck a grenade into my mouth when….” 

“I took it out,” the mother cut Rajab Ali short, “and threw it out the window into the yard. You can still see how it shattered our courtyard walls. Rajab Ali picked up another grenade from his pocket. I grabbed that one too and screamed at him: ‘Why are you trying to claim the space at the cemetery that is needed for someone else tomorrow?’ Then I told him that those who commit suicide must see death as something worthy of life, while life has no meaning in this country. I told him: even if you kill yourself a million times, nobody will notice your absence or existence in this country except me and our children. I told him: your life belongs to us and ours belong to you. Have you asked for our permission to kill a piece of us with you? Then I called him a lunatic, venom, a weak man, and so on.”

Timur looked at Rajab Ali, waiting for a response, but the man held his head down like a convict who was guilty of unredeemable crimes. Brian looked even worse. His agitated face made him look as if he had just stepped out of a warzone. “I’m so very sorry to hear all this!” he said with heartfelt compassion, glancing back and forth at the mother and Rajab Ali. Then he turned to Timur. “Oh man!” he sighed. “I wish we were here back then so we could have prevented all that suffering.” 

“I wish so too,” Timur concurred, suddenly feeling exhausted, even though he had not consulted his dictionary the entire time. 

“Your life is enhanced by the dust of life as a mirror is brighter when polished with grit,” Rajab Ali said with a grin, trying to change the direction of the conversation. 

“Should I take it to mean that my life is being enhanced by the dust of Kabul?” Brian asked. 

“Yes,” the mother responded. “Each speck of our dust carries countless spirits of this land’s martyred sons. Breathe our dust greedily. I promise it’ll make all your senses sharper.” Then she inhaled and exhaled as she raised and lowered her arms. “Our dust is the vitamin of the soul.” 

“We have a lot of soul vitamins in this country,” Rajab Ali said before he started eating again. “Maybe we should start exporting some of it abroad.” 

Everyone burst out laughing except Brian. He seemed perplexed, as if he had never seen people laugh before.  

Timur put a spoonful of rice in his mouth. “Life has taught us how to mock our sorrows,” he said with a full mouth, “and then hoot at them to keep our sanity intact.” 

“I can see that,” Brian said as he started to smile awkwardly. 

* * *

When they all finished their meals, Timur and Brian thanked the mother and Rajab Ali for lunch and got up to leave.  

“We aren’t rich, as you can see,” the mother said to Brian in the courtyard, “but we certainly are millionaires as far as love and hospitality are concerned. Come and bless our humble house again soon.” 

Timur interpreted. 

Brian put his right hand over his heart. “I will,” he said. “I definitely will.” Then he turned to Timur and asked in a whisper, “Should I give her some money for our lunch?”

“No. You’ll deeply offend her and Rajab Ali.” 

“Then why did she say that they weren’t rich?” 

“That is how we Afghans express our hospitality.” 

“I see,” Brian said before he gave the girl a pack of his gum. She seemed very excited, and she waved at them as they left. 

* * *

“I’m sorry you had to listen to their sad stories,” Timur said to Brian as they stepped outside. 

“No, not at all, man. They’re very brave to share so much with a stranger like me.” 

“I hope they didn’t spoil your lunch.” 

“Forget my lunch, man. You guys have gone through so much shit. I can’t imagine what it feels like to have your son blown to pieces or pick up dead bodies and body parts. The gruesome memories must be eating them up alive.” 

Timur was heartened to see that Brian had been able to understand what Rajab Ali and his wife had told him. He opened his mouth to tell him that while the factions were killing each other and innocent people throughout the country he was being forced to dance at parties and endure rape night after night. Before he could get the words out, two beggars dressed in tatters sitting on the sidewalk saw Brian and ran over to him. “Hey mister, two bucks please,” one of them said, tugging at Brian’s legs. “Give up two bucks for two cripples. I lost an ear in the war, and my brother lost his arm. Two cripples are worth two bucks, aren’t they?” 

Brian searched his pockets in a hurry and took out all the Afghanis he was carrying, which was worth more than twenty dollars. He handed the crumpled bills to the boy with a missing arm. 

“Thank you, mister,” the brothers said before they cheerfully ran to the bakery on the other side of the street and stood in line. Brian gazed at them for a long time with a sad look imprinted on his face. 

“What else do you want to see now?” Timur asked. 

“We should head back to the base,” Brian replied. He sounded like he was on the verge of tears. “It is getting late.” 

Timur whistled for a taxi, and they settled into the backseat. 

Brian was no longer beaming and full of life. His face was overcast. “Where did Rajab Ali get the grenades to kill himself with?” he asked. 

“Grenades were cheaper than potatoes during the years of war.”

“Why was that?”

“The Russians left most of their ammunition behind when they withdrew after ten years of occupation in 1989. Locals plundered the arsenals and sold the arms in the black market. Rockets were cheaper than carrots, bullets were cheaper than rice, a Kalashnikov was cheaper than a pound of beef, and gunpowder was cheaper than spices. You see, one could have a full meal of weapons, except they weren’t edible. So some people used their new weapons to kill their neighbors—even their brothers and cousins—to steal their food, money, clothes, and homes.” 

“Jesus!” 

Timur did not know why Brian had mentioned Prophet Jesus’s name. “Moses,” he said. 

“Excuse me?”

“Moses was a prophet who lived twelve hundred years before Jesus, and Mohammad became a prophet six hundred years after Prophet Jesus. You see, Christianity is caught between Judaism and Islam.” 

Brian seemed confused. “Why are you telling me all this?” he asked. 

“Because you said Jesus, and I thought you wanted to know if I knew who he was.” 

Now they were downtown. Brian did not respond. He looked out the window at the ruined buildings, the broken traffic lights, the men and women walking up and down the crowded sidewalks, and the loaded fruit and vegetables carts along the roads. Timur could tell from Brian’s squinting eyes and twitching eyebrows that the man was lost in his own thoughts. He did not bother talking to him until they reached the base and went inside. Brian sat in the white plastic chair in the shady spot near the gate, put his large gun on the ground, and buried his face in his hands. 

“You must be dehydrated,” Timur said. “Do you have a headache?”

“No,” Brian said as he went on holding his face in his hands. 

“What is wrong then?” 

Brian looked up at Timur as he remained standing in front of him. “I can’t stop thinking about what Rajab Ali and his wife told me,” he said. “I can’t get the images of those two little boys out of my head. How can one live a normal life after seeing and feeling so much pain? 

Brian was big and covered with weapons, but Timur could see he was just a man, and a good one. “Every single Afghan is like Rajab Ali, his wife, and those two beggar brothers,” he said. “Some of us suffered losses during the years of war, while the rest of us endured torture and humiliation. That is what war does to a nation.”

Brian buried his face in his hands again. “What a fucking wretched life, man!” he groaned. He suddenly looked up. “I feel like I gotta do something for Rajab Ali and his wife to relieve their mental pain. Tell me what to do, Timur. Tell me, man!” 

“I don’t think there is anything you can do for individuals like Rajab Ali and his wife.” Suddenly, Timur thought of something very important. “Except for one thing.” 

“What? Tell me already.” 

“Don’t let my country turn into a university of terrorism again.” 

 “That is why we are here, man – so this place doesn’t fall in the hands of terrorists again.” 

“Then consider your job done for now.” 

“Were you and your family here during the years of war?” 

Moments from his childhood flashed through Timur’s mind. Then he remembered his mother and sister in the countryside whom he had not seen for six years but missed very, very much. He suddenly felt nostalgic and angry at the same time. “I don’t want to talk about my life,” he answered.  

Brian got up, opened his large arms, and gave Timur a hug. “I understand,” he said. “I totally understand, buddy. You don’t ever have to talk about it.” 

Just then, John passed by. He was dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. He ignored Timur and said hello to Brian before he went to the gym. 

“Do you think he has terminated me?” Timur asked.

Brian shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “If you want, I can go talk to him and ask him to change his mind.” 

Timur was surprised to hear that. “Do you still want me to work with you after how badly I messed up this morning?” he asked. 

“Of course, man. It is good to have you on our team, even though your English needs some polishing.” 

Timur was suddenly filled with hope and could not help smiling from ear to ear. 

“Go to Eric’s office and wait for me there,” Brian said before he headed to the gym.

“Hi Eric,” Timur said as he walked into his office.  

Eric shut his laptop. “Hey Timur,” he said with a stern face. “John told me that you caused a big problem with a man on the street this morning. If that guy hit John with his shovel, John probably would’ve shot him, and that would’ve been a great tragedy.” He turned around in his rolling chair and pulled Timur’s old résumé from the green board, put it on his desk, and looked at it. “Your written English isn’t so bad, but your communication skills aren’t up to par yet.” He glanced up at Timur. “I must let you go.” 

Timur decided it now was the perfect time to show Eric how much he had improved his communication skills in one day. “If I have to fucking improve my fucking communication skills to fucking keep my fucking job,” he said in the softest and friendliest tone he could manage, “I’m going to fucking do everything I fucking can.” 

Eric leaned back in his chair, gaping at Timur with a stunned face. 

Timur was very proud of himself for impressing Eric. He thought he had saved his job. Now there was no need for Brian to beg John for his mercy. “You see, sir,” he added for maximum measure, “I’m a badass quick learner, am I not, sir?” 

Eric lowered his gaze and shook his head. Now Timur sensed that Eric was going to send him away no matter what. He wanted to say more to convince Eric that he was not going to misinterpret again and make a scene on the street, but his pride prevented him from uttering another word and making him sound like a beggar. 

With a flick of his pen, Eric gestured for Timur to leave. “See you tomorrow,” he said. “I might be able to find you a position in the office translating documents.” 

Timur was suddenly bursting with joy. He wanted to reach for Eric’s hands and shower them with kisses, but he knew the man would not allow it. He put his fist over his chest. “Thank you from the very bottom of my heart, sir,” he said. “I won’t disappoint you.” 

“Out,” Eric cut Timur short. 

Timur turned around to leave as quickly as possible so Eric would not change his mind.  

“And don’t use the “f” word with me ever again,” Eric added. 

Timur understood what Eric meant by the “f” word, but he did not know why he was being warned against using it. He decided not to ask and start a debate. “I’ll ask Brian about it later,” he told himself before he paused at the threshold. “I won’t, sir,” he said. “I definitely won’t.”

Eric was already staring at his laptop. “Out,” he ordered without looking up. 

“Yes, sir.” 

As Timur stepped outside onto the street, he had one thing in mind: to go to his room, write a letter to his mother and sister in the countryside, and invite them to move to Kabul and live with him. Soon he would be able to rent a house big enough for all of them with his generous new salary. The anticipation of reuniting with his family after six hard years of separation made his heart pound. He sat on the curb, trying to grasp the gravity of the sudden change in his life. The pedestrians who were hurrying home with bags full of groceries gave Timur strange looks. On the other side of the street, the vendors were yelling, “Where will you find fruits and vegetables as fresh as blossoms? Come, come! Don’t miss your chance, or you may regret it later.”

Qais Akbar Omar

Qais Akbar Omar (whose first name is pronounced “Kice”) is the author of A Fort of Nine Towers (FSG) which has been published in over twenty languages. Omar was born in 1982 in Kabul, Afghanistan. He holds a BA in journalism from Kabul University. He studied business at Brandeis University and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Boston University. In 2007, he was a visiting scholar at the University of Colorado. In 2014-15 he was a Scholars at Risk Fellow at Harvard University. For the 2012 anthology, That Mad Game: Growing up in a War Zone, Omar contributed the lead essay, “A Talib In Love,” presently under film option. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Sunday Times in London, The Globe and Mail in Canada, and the Cairo Review of Foreign Affairs, The Southern Review, Agni among others. He is the co-author, with Stephen Landrigan, of Shakespeare in Kabul.

7 Comments on “The Sudden Change

  1. Well, damn. I don’t think I have enough words to praise your story but the few I’ll use will be funny, insightful, instructive, beautiful, sad, delicate, hopeful, educational, entertaining. It’s also clearly written too. And I’m glad that your story did not stop at detailing military conflict and terrorism but in subtle ways, warned against it and encouraged readers to carefully consider its cost. Thank you for introducing me to Timur, Rajab Ali and his wife, Brian, John—whose lives felt so real. It was well worth the read. Man! I cannot stop gushing over this story!

  2. This story inspired every emotion in me from gut wrenching sadness, uncomfortable mirth, and finally feelings of hope for a better future for the people of Afghanistan. Beautiful writing!

  3. Your stories, and personal history, are conveyed with such a clear voice — transporting us to the occasions you draw upon, helping us to know, in a small way, how conflicts and war have shaped Afghan lives. Yours is an important voice — a beacon drawing our attention to what life was like before recent occupations. Thank you for lifting it up in this short story, in your memoir A Fort of Nine Towers, and Shakespeare in Kabul. Please keep writing.

  4. This story is so full of layers and textures that will sift through my imagination for a very long time. The seamless weaving of so much humor into an account undergirded by such horror is an indication of a master story-teller at work. The quick-witted Timur might have difficulty comprehending the book on Scottish Castles in the Middle Ages, but he clearly understands the human mind. Watching how he combines his keen intellect with his limited command of English to find a common language with the Americans he encounters is like watching two wrestlers circling each other. The difference is that in the end, both are victors. Very funny. Very moving.

    I look forward to reading more by Qais Akbar Omar.

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